A Discussion with Dr. Renier Koegelenberg, Executive Director of Ecumenical Foundation of Southern Africa (EFSA)

With: Renier Koegelenberg Berkley Center Profile

May 15, 2020

Background: Dr. Renier Koegelenberg is a leader in efforts to promote both ecumenical and interfaith cooperation on a broad development agenda, but especially on public health, across Southern Africa. The programs he supports focus on demanding partnerships including, among others, mining companies and churches. The theme running through his work is expanding access to public health for poor communities, and to this end, Dr. Koegelenberg has led a wide range of academic and operational cooperation efforts. Among these is involvement in the Ahimsa Forum which links health, faith, and innovation. This interview reflects a series of discussions with Katherine Marshall and Lauren Herzog, in person and by email. The COVID-19 crisis affects South Africa and Dr. Koegelenberg is building on a partnership with Anglo American (especially its Kumba Kolomela Iron Ore mine) to provide a shared roadmap for “sustainable communities” in towns affected by mining activities. The COVID-19 crisis has serious effects on local economies and food security for many poor families. He also describes the history and present of the institutions he has founded and leads that work to bring the important roles of South Africa’s churches together with government entities and private companies.

We build bridges of dialogue even as we help churches to say plausibly and prophetically what is wrong and, if it is wrong, what is a better direction. Churches were a global community long before globalization. Both the world and churches are, however, changing and adapting. Fundamentally, our role is to support what religious institutions wants to do.

How are you experiencing the COVID-19 crisis?

The Covid 19 pandemic proves two vital points. First, the interdependence and “connectedness” of all countries, whether in the North or the South; we see this also in the consequences of climate change and in migration and refugees. Diseases know no boundaries and do not differentiate between levels of income or status in society. Second, no sector can solve the problems we are facing on their own (not governments, business, or church networks). We must foster constant dialogue and find ways to collaborate formally, to meet both global and local challenges.

I personally am very privileged, living at home with a garden and enough space for the whole family. It is challenging to shift entirely to electronic media. But our situation is far better than that of many compatriots and there is much suffering all around us.

South Africa is Africa’s most industrialized country, with modern infrastructure and multiple international partnerships. We are one of the world’s favourite tourist destinations, with many international flights to Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban. That opened South Africa to risks of infection. The first Covid 19 infections in South Africa came through families returning from a ski holiday in Italy. Infections increased as people returned home from England, Germany, Switzerland or Italy, and through several foreign tourist groups visiting South Africa. A special wine tasting tour for a Dutch wine club resulted in the first infections at well-known wine Estates in Stellenbosch.

Rapid urbanization results in very high density “townships”, filled with South Africans and refugees from neighboring countries. People live in small shacks around the big cities and depend on travel by train, bus and mini-bus taxis. All that contributes to the high risk of spreading the disease.

South Africa’s response to the Covid-19 threats overall has been rapid and strong including a nationwide lockdown from March 27. It has both positive and negative aspects. Many guidelines published by the government to regulate the lock-down (stay in your home except to buy food or medication) are not clear, and new changes are announced almost daily. For example, there are constant debates about what are “essential services” that may remain open for business, like food-stores and pharmacies.

The measures seem unnecessarily extreme for some situations. There is little to no allowance for discretion on keeping physical distancing. The South African Police have absolute powers to enforce the rules. In many suburbs and small towns, people generally adhere to the lock-down (staying in your home, not even allowed to walk your dogs). This is not the case in poorer areas.

All church services (with exception of funerals with special measures to limit participants), hotels, restaurants and bars are closed, and people are not allowed to buy tobacco products or liquor. Many churches therefore are using Web-links or podcasts for their services and bible studies.

What about the economic effects?

The lockdown is having a devastating effect on most sectors of the economy. It is almost impossible to adhere to the shutdown regulations in the large, over-crowded townships around the cities. The metal shacks are small with many people sharing one room (5-10. depending on size of the shacks). People thus mill around in large numbers and do not adhere to “physical distancing”, that is, keeping at least 1 meter distance from other people. This is especially a problem for the taxi industry that transports people around and into the cities. Although they try to constrain them to 70 percent of capacity, the taxis are known to be over-crowded and difficult to monitor. This poses a serious risk of spreading the virus. The government is therefore testing among taxis and some “hotspots” in the townships close to cities (e.g. Alexandra in Johannesburg, Kayalitsha in Cape Town).

Daily food security and informal work opportunities are major issues. Informal traders, often women who have fruit stalls close to taxi-ranks, are self-employed and must care for children and grand-children. They cannot survive without daily income. Some regulations applying to these “spaza shops” have recently been relaxed, but with fewer people travelling, they still find it very hard to survive.

There are positive experiences. Some families that employ domestic or cleaning staff (who are not allowed to travel to work) still pay them (electronically) and support them with food even if they do not come to work. But part-time workers in gardening, building and in hotels industry (and restaurants) have no income. Many businesses (small, medium, and large chains) have great difficulty in paying their worker. The problems increases with every additional week of the shut-down.

What about health care?

A major concern is that South Africa’s nurses and doctors working in public hospitals do not have enough protective clothing to cope with the increase in cases. We simply do not have enough test-kits or laboratories to cope with a sudden increase in demand for testing. The Minister of Health, Dr Mkhize, warns the public constantly that we must expect an increase in infections and possible deaths, that we have not yet seen the peak of infections in South Africa. The situation can become much worse, despite attempts to curb it.

How have the organizations you lead, that link churches and government and private companies, been able to respond?

An important part of our work with churches during this crisis takes the form of consultations (or “public theology” seminars) for senior church and faith leaders. We focus on policy issues; sharing the latest findings, like up to date guidance on measures for self-protection. We cannot meet in groups at the moment, so we use electronic media and regular e-mail newsletters to inform our religious leaders. We have also been able to organize practical relief food programmes in some areas. We have built strong networks over many years, which we can use at times like this. We have also started sharing some of the global research on the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic for the years to come on all sectors of society (state priorities, economy, etc.).

What are the major health challenges, besides COVID-19?

South Africa is a country with many contradictions – a mixture of first and third worlds. On the one hand we have universities that are internationally recognized (especially in terms of medical research and training). We have an excellent private health sector with highly trained specialists and modern facilities, even with subsidiaries in Europe. But it is too expensive for citizens who do not have medical insurance. On the other hand, the public health system is failing many poor South Africans, mainly due to a chronic shortage of medical staff (doctors and nurses), especially in the rural areas. Weak management capacity has resulted in a maintenance crisis in public hospitals and clinics, including shortages of stocks of basic medication. For several months the Kwazulu Natal Province had no oncology specialists in public hospitals, as staff migrated to private hospitals because of poor maintenance of critical diagnostic and treatment equipment.

South Africa is challenged by pandemics like HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis; but also an increase in non-communicable diseases (high blood pressure, diabetes), which, of course, is a global phenomenon. Health education, treatment and adherence to treatment, and support to people in the fight against HIV and AIDS are what is most encouraging, and notably progress at the local community level.

How are churches involved in the efforts?

Churches and faith communities have the largest footprint and presence at the community level. Churches have a long history in health in South Africa. They started the first nursing colleges and training programs for doctors, that even today reach into rural areas. Churches and faith communities are best placed throughout South Africa to give basic health education and treatment of chronic diseases, in partnership with the government health department.

How do economic factors affect this historical outreach to churches on health?

Even before the Covid 19 pandemic first manifested itself, South Africa was in a very serious economic crisis. It is the cumulative result of poor political and economic policy choices over the past 25 years. Causes include an explosion in the numbers of public servants; public sector salaries that are three times higher than countries with comparable economies; little to no improvement in delivery of basic services, with the exception of widely extended social grants to poor families; and the provision of water and electricity to many townships; and preference given to hiring inexperienced senior ANC party members as business managers in State owned Enterprises (SOE’s), resulting in the loss of billions of Rand (examples include South African Airways, the Electricity Supply Commission, ESCOM, and The Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa - PRASA).

Well intentioned measures to correct the historic exclusion of the black population from economic and educational opportunities, through preferred supply chain contracts with state entities (part of Black Economic Empowerment [BEE] legislation) have enriched a circle of “politically connected entrepreneurs”, without benefitting the majority of the black population. The opposite has occurred in some cases: inexperienced contract holders do not add value. Maintenance of ESCOM power stations is one example; the failure of most local town councils to deliver basic sewerage and water services to small towns by highly paid bureaucrats is another.

Populist policy choices to please frustrated black voters, like proposals to change the constitution to give the state powers to dis-appropriate private land without compensation in fact increase insecurity. That harms local and foreign investment.

President Ramaphosa is striving to correct the situation and his reform plans are slowly gaining traction. But many senior ANC representatives have yet to be prosecuted for mismanagement or fraud. On the positive side, the national Reserve Bank has lowered interest rates to stimulate the economy. Many insurance companies and banks have offered “payment breaks” on repayment of loans. Several well-known wealthy families (Oppenheimers; Ruperts, Motsepe) have donated large sums from their private wealth to support the “solidarity fund” created by President Ramaphosa, for measures to extend grants and loans to workers and small businesses through this very tough economic period.

What is the present situation?

We have a perfect storm: a serious economic crisis that weakens state institutions (including health and social services) and now a very dangerous virus pandemic to combat. President Ramaphasa’s decisive action is appreciated, as are extensive consultations with opposition parties, churches, and business networks to introduce emergency measures. His leadership is inspiring trust. The same cannot be said about several of his senior cabinet ministers, notably those responsible for policing, transport and social development. Their almost ad hoc and sometimes illogical decisions (like special measures that prohibit selling tobacco products and liquor and wine exports) do not inspire, rather they ring alarm bells. Trading of illegal cigarettes (a huge problem in South Africa) and liquor are increasing.

Increases in abuse cases within unstable families are linked to the crisis but they are difficult to monitor and act upon. Churches and faith communities can help both in monitoring and responding. But the churches also face major challenges, accentuated as services and events like funerals cannot be held in churches.

At a practical level, many churches provide social and food services. Because these are defined as “special services”, they are allowed to bring food parcels and medicine to older people or vulnerable families that have no income. This sharing of food parcels goes beyond church members, benefiting society’s most vulnerable members. Counselling, to address strains on families since the lock-in measures, has exploded, using telephone calls or WhatsApp groups.

Stepping back, how would you describe your work and official functions?

My identities can be somewhat confusing! EFSA is an ecumenical research institute, linked to three universities and other institutions and networks. I also am part of a national interfaith network that developed from the work of the research institute.

I founded EFSA after I completed my theology studies in Germany and it drew both on the inspiration of earlier South African religious leaders and my reading of the German experience with church networks.

It was Dr. Beyers Naudé, who sent me to Germany. He was an icon in South Africa, a famous leader of the conservative Dutch Reform Church who led protests against the apartheid system. At the 1960 World Council of Churches meeting, he urged that “Churches must oppose apartheid.” I knew Beyers personally and he challenged me to focus in my studies on the roles that South Africa’s churches might play in bringing Apartheid to an end and rebuilding South Africa in the aftermath. I accepted a scholarship through the German exchange service to do my doctoral studies in Germany.

One step led to another. I got involved in many German church initiatives worldwide that were working to mediate in conflict regions, led by a Dialogue that specialized in bringing conflict partners together through a church platform.

When I returned to South Africa. I founded the EFSA ecumenical institute. It initially drew from the three universities based in the Western Cape region—Cape Town University, Western Cape University, and Stellenbosch University, and the Council of Churches. We have now functioned for 30 years and many projects have developed into national programs.

What purpose did you see for EFSA when it was established?

The core challenge is that there are many institutions that have not traditionally worked together. Beyers Naudé sent me to Germany in part so that I would understand better the different German institutions and thus how various South African churches could support the rebuilding of South Africa. Germany has several national institutions that bring churches together, including the network of so-called church academies. They are owned by the churches, but they work at the interface between policy, economics, and the church. They are permanent dialogue centers that run rich programs of conferences that address the challenges of the day but also look ahead to the future. The academy movement in Germany offers quite unique platforms that churches have institutionalized, with the express purpose of bringing players together in dialogue. They draw on German history, including its role in starting two world wars. There is also a movement within the Catholic and Lutheran churches, the Kirchentag, or “church day.” This involves a massive civil society conference for youth, NGOs, and official churches. It too is unique: no other country has something similar. I was thus exposed to these institutions.

When I returned to South Africa, I recognized that we did not have the same resources as Germany (they have quite substantial resources). Our resources are our universities. Thus we created EFSA institute as an inter-university network, together with church leaders. Many project staff are full-time university staff.

How does EFSA work now?

EFSA itself is a network of universities and churches. We have focused for thirty years, and still do today, on the development role of churches. That takes us to the roles that churches play in South Africa. South Africa is different from Germany, in that we are not a social state, and many people fall between the cracks (even though South Africa is the only country in Africa that give social grants to poor families). This is not enough – and churches are the only ones that have the capacity to care for them. Churches have vast and strong social networks. Jewish communities play similar roles as do other faiths. So while EFSA was initially just a Christian initiative of universities and Christian churches, we developed into an interfaith platform, that we call the National Religious Association for Social Development (NRASD). As NRASD, we lobby the government on policy issues, and we put proposals jointly to donors. Thus we became a partner with the Global Fund to fight HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis in South Africa. We bundle the national agencies of the faith networks and apply as a group. We speak as a group on policy issues, and try to raise resources and money for development programs.

One of our central focuses is how to change the church. How do you help to educate pastors? They are extremely influential but there are deficits in their training. Training in theological seminaries is very academic, so we have added gender and development as special issues in university conferences. These topics are now part of the curricula of seminars. We have, I think, played an important role in broadening the curricula of South Africa’s theological seminaries – especially through our program to advance the work of women theologians.

What about the academic side? How does that link social and practical issues?

EFSA’s work has grown and it is now an African network, with multiple partnerships. NetACT is a network of protestant Presbyterian theological seminaries across all of Africa. We sponsor it and we sponsor some of their books. We deal with common challenges, mainly linked to the development agenda.

We also publish quite a lot. A longstanding issue has been the role of women in the church. We published a series of books on the topic that includes contributions from women theologians across Africa. Among them is Isabel Phiri, who is with the World Council of Churches today. Some of South Africa’s first women theologians had our support in completing their studies, and we have hosted conferences and published many of their books.

That has led to many partnerships, including with the Global Fund and Ahimsa. One thing leads to another; my contact with Jean-François de Lavison and Ahimsa came through Christoph Benn, who I knew and who was with the Global Fund.

What churches do you work with?

We focus on South Africa’s leading churches --notably the mainline churches, that is, Catholics, Methodist, Presbyterian, or Anglicans. But we also work with what are the largest churches, in South Africa and beyond, the so-called African Independent Churches (AICs). The AICs have no international platforms and they don’t get international funding. They have a very unique identity, a mixture of Christianity and local culture and they have a strong followings. They are really the church of the poor. You can become a minister in one of these churches without any theological training, because the basis of their existence is caring for the poor. They are incredibly proud of this system, and they have an old-fashioned discipline that for us in Protestant, and even Anglican churches, is sometimes difficult to understand. They have huge influence on the majority of rural, poor, black people in South Africa, but also in the whole southern African region. Being part of our network gives them a greater voice and we have partnered with them on some successful educational and health grants.

Our partnership with AICs began with education. We had a long partnership with the government on so-called basic education-- basic numeracy and basic literacy-- because many people in South Africa are still illiterate. If you are illiterate you chance of finding a job is zero so the best way to empower people is to make them literate. We use the churches as channels to do that. Our cooperation with AICs in different phases was helpful to them and it gave us access to them. There are still challenges, because their approach is unique. They like to be independent; they don’t like to operate within ecumenical councils. They have their own culture. Our unique capability is our access through our programs.

What kinds of funding and programs do you have?

We do academic research and work with the universities. We function in some respects as a development agency helping to develop projects that can strengthen the role of the churches. We have channeled about US$70 million to South Africa’s AIDS programs, among others.

We also engage in policy dialogue. Building on the traditions that I was exposed to in the German academies, this involves engaging with business and government. Both have significant expertise. South Africa’s largest formal, privately organized welfare services are run by the churches, not by the government. The government makes grants to poor people but most of the grassroots, caring networks are run by churches. They never have enough resources, so they experience the failures of government directly. Social responsibility is chronically underfunded; grants have no systemic support. We therefore engage in a constant dialogue with different ministries—health, social development ministry, etc.—focused on gaps. We focus on children, gender issues, and caring for those that fall between the cracks. South Africa does not have a state social security system, although we are the only country in Africa with enormous social grant: more people receive grants in South Africa than work. That in itself is a large crisis.

There are many practical challenges. To take one example, you cannot get support for a child in South Africa if you don’t have a birth certificate. Many women don’t know who the father is, and thus cannot get a birth certificate. If you want children to be cared for or support women caring for children, you must help them to get birth certificates. South Africa is short an estimated 50,000 social workers, but only a social worker can certify that a child is vulnerable and thus eligible for a grant. We therefore have an agreement with the government that we will help to identify vulnerable children through church networks. We are a facilitator between what the churches do and what the government wants.

Through our interaction with government, we have become involved in anti-corruption issues. We supported the previous finance minister (Pravin Gordhan, now minister of state enterprises) who was fired because he stood against corruption, exposing false accusations and giving him some moral support. We also try to influence policy in a positive sense, criticizing what is not working, but also making proposals for what we see as alternatives.

How did you get involved with business?

We have engaged with many businesses, including studies and conferences. Our largest effort at present involves the mining industry, which, for many reasons, is coming under extreme pressures that are linked both to economics and to policy.

South Africa’s mining policies are seriously flawed, discouraging new investments. The mines are kept alive by private capital that comes from all over the world. If there are low returns on investment, there’s no reason to invest. Mines thus must make a profit. South Africa mining industry involved the worst apartheid exploitation chapters in our history. Cheap black labor was used to produce for international mining companies. The new black elite now seeks to be partners, and a strong sense of entitlement is involved: expecting ownership in the mines, but with limited ability to invest in workers or to address South Africa’s poverty issues.

The result is huge social conflict around the mines. Communities around the mines remain poor. Many mines are in traditional areas where the old system of chiefs is still strong. Rampant corruption is involved in several cases. To get a mining license, the chief must give permission, and there must be a social labor plan that requires spending a certain percentage (not really much) in communities immediately around the mines. That money often disappears into chiefs’ pockets, so communities see these massive industries, but don’t benefit from them. It seems that new black billionaires profit through empowerment deals and local communities don’t benefit from this in a meaningful way.

Anglo-American [a large mining company] has a history of dialogue that involves the Catholic Church, the Pope, and local communities, and we are deeply involved. It was launched by Mark Cutifani, COO of Anglo American, now based in London. In Southern Africa, Archbishop Makgoba, our current chairperson, coordinates Anglo-American’s Southern Africa chapter. He created forums where business leaders, trade unions, government, and churches cooperate, asking: “What can we do together?” The pressures are enormous. People think the mining companies have all the money and expect the them to pay for everything. But they simply don’t have enough money. They do invest in schools, water supply, and other infrastructure, in part because the mines need it. The government is asked to fund school teachers and maintenance. When they fail to do so, there’s conflict and infrastructure goes to waste. Another tension is reluctance to see anyone coming from outside so jobs to go to locals, but most are poorly trained.

The upshot is considerable labor unrest in poor communities around the mines.

The problems are thus very complex, in many ways symbolizing all South Africa’s challenges. Past legacies have created wide disparities and inequalities. But how do you solve the immediate problems? If you kill mining, instructing them to spend, they will disappear, finding better places to invest. That would increase unemployment and create ghost towns, because mining is the only income in many rural areas. Expecting mining companies to create jobs not linked to mining or to invent sustainable futures for communities around the mines presents large challenges to the mining industry itself. They can be catalysts but they can’t fund everything. An added problem is the view that the mines are tainted because of their history of exploitation.

The situation demands credible people who can mediate. That brings us to church leaders.

How are EFSA and churches involved in work with mining companies?

Church leaders are not always well equipped to play these roles. We started with pilot projects that bring mining communities and the hundreds of different churches around the mines, small AICS, together. We begin by looking for their ideas on solutions. We focus on human development, not creating infrastructure, as the mining companies do build schools and hospitals and provide water.

Health and education are key issues. Most churches agree that we should focus on early childhood development, because all research in South Africa shows that the best chance to help people out of poverty is investing in very young learners from the earliest stages. That is where our education system is failing. We also look to healthcare where the government has large dreams, while the reality is the exact opposite. There are complex issues to deal with. Many have indicated that they want safe houses for women and children who are abused. In traditional systems, they can’t move out of their homestead and have nowhere else to go. They are stuck, unless you have safe houses. There are many problems around quality of education. We believe that if we invest in people, get them better trained, they will benefit in the long-term, whether or not they stay close to the mine.
Church forums around the mines include all the mainline churches, but also the AICS and other faiths. While Muslims and Hindus are very small minorities in some areas (one or two percent), the principle is important: interfaith approaches are needed. For several years we have mediated talks between the CEO, the senior management of the mines, and the communities, thus acting as facilitators, in intermediary roles. We are trying to find a model that works for the local communities and works for the mine.

The challenge is tough and complicated, flowing from our history. There are enormous and often totally unrealistic expectations as to what the mining companies can do. The mines are very decentralized, and I’ve learned that the CEO of a local mine has great authority. But he has to please everybody, including assuring a profit for the shareholders and surviving as a mine. At umbrella bodies like the chamber of mines, they share notes, and not everybody is interested in the kinds of initiatives we support. Some mines say openly that they are not interested.

How were you able to work with Anglo American?

At the international level, eight of the world’s largest mines are part of a global steering committee that engages on social issues, because there are conflicts between mines and local communities across the world and complex legacies to address. Anglo American’s CEO is based in London and reflects a global focus that goes beyond South Africa.

The problems challenge both the mines and the churches. Our former chairperson, Archbishop Makgoba, comes from a mining community. He was a mining psychologist and his father was a mineworker, so he knows the challenges facing mining and the workforce. He believes that mining companies face burning issues that affect us all. If we can address them, we will save many jobs by preventing mine closures. If mining companies can’t make profits and are constantly disrupted, they will simply close and go where it is easier to operate. Dealing with the mining industry is an important part of South Africa’s transition to democracy. It challenges us, as churches, to ask what is our value added? We need to come out of our comfort zone, simply criticizing businesses or government. Can we really make a difference? There is also a research element, linked to our academic networks. We want to influence the curricula of theological training institutions, still very western and academic, but not strong on economic and development issues, which is our primary focus.

We also work to build international links, and we have facilitated many exchange programs. We have strong German-South African links, working closely with the Lutheran Church and the Catholic Church, Germany’s two largest churches. Many German colleagues are honorary professors in South Africa, and many South African students now study in Germany. Over the last 30 years, we have facilitated several international scholarships for South Africans for doctoral studies in Germany or the United States. What we do is not always visible. Such capacity building is a slow process.

We are very small, but we have an especially strong network. We are biased towards the South. What the international community does is wonderful, but there is a deficit, in that so many people with power come from the North. They’ve got money, they’ve got staff, and they dictate the international agenda. They do good work, but it does not always help the South. We work to create strong institutions in the South.

You can’t produce excellence on your own. You need different perspectives to challenge what you’re doing. We have some difficult partnerships where people challenge our work constantly, but you need friends like that., at least sometimes. Churches and faith communities do contribute to stigma and they need to change in significant ways. That’s our primarily objective. But you can’t do this if you don’t have international networks that expose you broadly. We combine an academic research program, development work that brings funds and action, and a dialogue program that includes academics disciplines related to work the churches are doing, together with business and government. This is a powerful combination.

Taking a global perspective can ease the pressure of burning issues facing us at home. Focusing on regional challenges presents issues differently, so that church leaders cannot simply say that our government is dirty and corrupt. There’s no dialogue there. We build bridges of dialogue even as we help churches to say plausibly and prophetically what is wrong and, if it is wrong, what is a better direction. Churches were a global community long before globalization. Both the world and churches are, however, changing and adapting. EFSA has a very small staff but our strength comes from our access to university networks, and university research, with some capacity to fund it.

Our networks are part of the education process of church leaders at home. We support church leadership to think beyond church issues, about public policy, health, and human rights issues. It’s not easy for them. Churches, by their nature, are very conservative. It is a long-term objective. We have managed to survive, we have published a lot, and we have funded a lot of church projects, so we have built a lot of trust amongst churches.

Fundamentally, we see our role as facilitators, supporting the development role of churches and faith communities. One of our dreams is to build an ecumenical Academy infrastructure (conference rooms and accommodation) in Stellenbosch – we where have established a formal partnership with an historic wine estate (Blaauwklippen Estate, providing the land), that could support the development of young leaders from different sectors through exchange and research programs.


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